Coles workers force management to act on COVID-19 threat

August 11, 2021
Workers have told the United Workers Union about their difficulties in staying safe at work. Photo: UWU/Facebook

Workers at the Coles distribution warehouse at Eastern Creek, in Sydney’s western suburbs, have exposed how managers there put profits above their health and safety.

United Workers Union (UWU) delegate George told an August 3 UWU forum that they had to force management to take action to protect themselves against a possible COVID-19 outbreak on July 31.

“A team member was notified that some family members had tested positive for COVID on Saturday. He did the right thing by alerting management, and he was escorted off site straight away,” George said.

“They then got confirmation he had tested positive.

“I told the management we need to shut down the shed, alert our team members and delay the next shift, which was due to start at 3pm.

“It was 40 minutes to an hour until they told our team members [about the positive infection].

“[Management] didn’t want to do it, but I got my point across and they ended the shift at 2pm.”

George said he stayed back “to make sure everything was all right”.

Management organised for just two cleaners to come in to clean the shed. It took just half an hour to do a deep clean.

“Management wanted to push the shift back to 4pm. I told them no way that can happen. If the workers get [COVID-19] they’re going to be taking it back to their families,” George said.

When the UWU organiser and health and safety representatives arrived, management “started taking things more seriously and brought in more cleaners”.

The workers refused to enter and eventually the shift was cancelled.

George criticised the lack of procedure as “disgusting”.

Safety plan needed

“[The company] should have had a plan, instead of making ridiculous calls on the spot. It was chaos.”

He also said workers needed to know how to be COVID-19 safe. “It means the safety of yourself, your co-workers and your family. Be ready. Know your rights and don’t be afraid to take action.”

UWU organiser Sharon Burlings said Coles management wanted to open up “at any cost”. “They refused me entry to do an inspection. But, luckily we had a good delegate and health and safety reps there.”

Tim Gunstone from the UWU NSW said even though the majority of COVID-19 infections are happening at work, employers are exerting pressure on workers “to just keep working”.

“If at any time you consider you and your workmates are at risk, you have the right to stop work on paid time, under current occupational health and safety law,” he said.

In addition to paid pandemic leave, Gunstone said the union was pushing for employees to be able to get tested. “We can’t rely on employers to protect our health. They always put profit ahead of people.”

A call was made to all UWU members to immediately contact the union office using the COVID-19 Hotline in any case of a workplace infection.

Meanwhile, at the end of July, the UWU asked the NSW government to convene a crisis meeting with unions, employer representatives and Safework NSW. The union has proposed steps to prevent the rise in transmissions in distribution centres. The Berejiklian government is yet to respond.

UWU National Secretary Tim Kennedy said: “It has become clear in Sydney that numbers are staying stubbornly high because people are going to work while infectious. This makes this an issue of workplace safety.”

Union offers help

The UWU wants the NSW government to take control of deploying rapid testing and vaccination at major distribution facilities, to ensure employers are required to provide heightened protection for essential workers including adequate personal protective equipment and safety protocols to combat the highly infectious Delta variant.

The union is aware of at least seven sites in NSW where workers have been exposed to confirmed infections and have either not been contacted by NSW Health or have been given contradictory instruction to that of their employer.

On August 2, a worker at a PFD Food Services distribution centre in Chullora found out they were infectious. PFD was told at 10am the next day, but the company did not pass on that information to close contacts until the end of their shift, at 2pm.

The company instructed the workers to get tested and self isolate — using their annual leave.

The afternoon shift workers were told that they were not close contacts and therefore had to work.

The UWU believes there was a potential cross-over of the two shifts of around 30 minutes.

“In previous instances of high community spread, unions have worked with government authorities to help curb transmission,” Kennedy said.

He said the government needed to listen to take advice from those who are currently most impacted —  workers. “We have OHS structures at many workplaces across NSW that can be activated in a state-wide strategy to protect people from the current Delta variant.”

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